By: Morgan Mansfield/Co-Editor in Chief
Thirteen years ago, Lauren Stepniak entered the Blue Ridge School District, lighting up the world for everyone around her. For many, it was Lauren’s bubbly personality that lifted up their spirits. Her big heart and intelligent mind have been an inspiration for many, especially for her Personal Care Aid (PCA), Mrs. Patti Cramer.
Like many students who start kindergarten, Lauren was excited to meet her teachers, make friends and, of course, learn. However, Lauren, unlike many of her peers, has her own challenges. She can’t walk or talk because she has Rhett Syndrome.
Rett syndrome is a rare non-inherited genetic postnatal neurological disorder that, according to the National Institures of Health, affects one in 22,000 females in the United States and occurs almost exclusively in girls. The syndrome affects the ability to speak, walk, eat, and even breathe easily.
Lauren’s mother, Lisa Stepniak, a Blue Ridge Middle School English and Reading teacher, says that when Lauren started school, there was really no way of communicating with her, and there was no way of knowing what she could or couldn’t learn. However, the first thing, according to Mrs. Stepniak, was making sure other students found Lauren approachable.
“When Lauren went into the classroom, she had April Rhone for a kindergarten teacher. I asked that students be allowed to ask any questions–and even touch her wheel chair. I wanted the students to be comfortable with her.” Mrs. Stepniak continues saying, “I knew April would challenge Lauren. April didn’t rely on Patty to take care of Lauren but asked her to do as much as possible. She would have Lauren join their morning circle, and Lauren would crawl over to sit in her spot. I told April, ‘teach her everything,’ and she did.”
Unsure as to whether or not Lauren was learning in school, Mrs. Stepniak wanted to see if Lauren was learning her letters. “I put cards all over the house and would ask her to go to certain letters–and she did, so I knew she was learning her letters. My brother, Donnie Burchell, made her a letter map, and Lauren immediately spelled out ‘Merry Christmas.’ No spelling errors, every letter was where it belonged. So, her teachers started incorporating the idea in the classroom.”
“Our school family has impacted her in so many ways! It isn’t just our immediate family that helped Lauren, but everyone here at Blue Ridge,” says Stepniak.
One very important member of the Stepniak’s school family is Mrs. Patti Cramer. Cramer has been Lauren’s personal care assistant (PCA) since she was in Kindergarten, and their relationship has grown since. Reflecting on Lauren as a child, Cramer says,
“Lauren always tried to keep up with the kids in her class. She was a normal, active kid.”
After thirteen years together, the pair has formed a unique friendship and, as Cramer likes to say, their “own language.”
Lauren, who communicates by using an alphabet rug, says of Patti, “Sometimes she drives me crazy and makes me mad. Sometimes she makes me laugh because she’s a sore loser. She always knows what I need, always. I love her.”
Patti and Lauren have created many memories over the past thirteen years, but there is one from when Lauren was in third grade that truly stands out to Cramer. It was “the day she said my name. She called me ‘Pat Pat’.”
Moments like those are what have really impacted Cramer in her years of working with Lauren, saying, “She will always leave a hand print on my heart.”
Cramer is not the only one who has been impacted by Lauren over the past thirteen years. Many of Stepniak’s teachers and fellow classmates have been touched by her bright personality.
Mrs. Trudi Hepler taught Lauren as a second grader, and was able to witness Lauren’s positive interactions with those around her.
“I had a very understanding and patient class, and Patti was terrific with her,” Hepler says. Lauren even participated in class plays and went sleigh riding with her classmates. “It was an honor having her in my class.”
Middle school math teacher, Ms. Jaclyn Lynch has become close friends with the Stepniak family over the years and has gotten to know Lauren very well.
“Lauren has a brilliant mind and incredibly caring heart. She is very funny, patient, and always thinking of others. When given the chance, her smile and eyes show her great personality,” says Lynch.
Lauren’s intelligence really shined through in Lynch’s math class.
“I remember being amazed at the amount of work she would do in her head. We often had her test in the hallway because the other students knew how intelligent she was and during tests would try and copy off of her.”
Just as Lauren has impacted her teachers, she has also left a mark on the lives of her fellow classmates. “Lauren was my first friend when I came back in middle school,” says senior Allyssa Johnson. “She’s always makes me smile and laugh. She has such a big personality and just lights up the room. I’ve had the honor of being one of her best friends, and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’m blessed to be graduating with her.”
Stepniak is now a high school senior, making it a difficult and emotional goodbye for the dynamic duo of Lauren and Patti.
“I will miss her eyerolls, quirky laughs, and her everyday teenage attitude that makes us laugh and frustrated at the same time,” says Cramer.
However, this is not a goodbye for Blue Ridge. Lauren will be staying at Blue Ridge High School for another school year with her support teacher, Mrs. Bobbie McCain. She will be learning how to independently communicate with the world through the use of Tobii Dynavox (visit
site for more details).
Although Lauren is not saying goodbye to the school, she will no longer be working with her 13-year partner in crime, Mrs. Patti Cramer, and will miss having Cramer by her side each day.
According to Lauren, “[Patti] really treats me like her own kid. She loves me, protects me, and pushes me to be my best. I feel very sad leaving her, but real glad God gave me her for this long.”
Cramer has not only gone through thirteen years with Lauren, but thirteen years with the entire senior class, saying, “I know it’s about Lauren, but her journey wasn’t alone. She taught the kids acceptability and that everyone can be different.”
At the same time, Cramer says her experience of working with Lauren meant she also worked with Lauren’s peers, giving her a unique perspective on the entire class.
“I’ve watched Lauren grow, and I’ve watched the whole class grow. And it has been an amazing journey. I can’t wait to see Lauren and the rest of her class spread their wings in their different directions.”